Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 1, 2010
Red The Donmar Warehouse production of a new play by John Logan. Directed by Michael Grandage. Set and costume design by Christopher Oram. Lighting design by Neil Austin. Composer and sound design by Adam Cork. Cast: Alfred Molina, Eddie Redmayne.
This would be Mark Rothko, a Russian-born painter who became one of the most distinct proponents of abstract expressionism in the mid-20th century. He developed his unique style in response the work of many others, ranging from the paintings of Paul Klee and Georges Rouault to the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, but found mainstream success by uncovering a link between his visions of sorrow and pain and rich, East Coast guilt. Though it’s outwardly odd that he’d be asked to design the murals for the Four Seasons restaurant inside the Seagram building on Park Avenue, isn’t there a delicious irony in his being engaged to - by intent or by accident - ruin the appetites of the multimillionaires who dine there?
It’s at this point, somewhere around 1958, that Logan’s examination starts, with Rothko (Alfred Molina) nearing completion of the Four Seasons project just as his own star begins its slow implosion. Rothko, you see, is on the way out, and younger talents like Lichtenstein and Warhol are ascending to take his place. And Rothko is, perhaps unsurprisingly, not taking it well. Nor does he understand the connection made by his passionate but unpolished young assistant, Ken (Eddie Redmayne), that as Rothko once took joy in “destroying” Picasso and his contemporaries, so too are the new crop doing the same to him.
The confrontations can be familial or fierce, the advice (regardless of the direction in which it’s moving) loving or lacerating, the insights into art or existence more (and sometimes less) than you expect. But because their humanity and love (for something, if not necessarily for each other) are always on full view, which prevents Logan’s writing from sounding like a scripted museum lecture. When the two are raging - as, on some level, they pretty much always are - it comes from the heart, not a history book, which makes this a fully drawn play and not a hastily sketched pamphlet.
This isn’t to say that Logan doesn’t sometimes go too far. Because so much is known about Rothko’s life, a flat-lining foil wouldn’t allow a fair fight; so Logan has devised a lengthy, sad history for Ken that seems to exist for the purpose of promoting pain, not showing how the young man overcame it. Plus, because Ken functions as the megaphone in Rothko’s ear, Logan does tend to overemphasize his grander messages, rather than letting us discover every nuance of his arguments for ourselves.
The play could well be more effective still if, like Rothko’s paintings, it were more abstract and less literal. (Christopher Oram’s set, looking like something of a high-ceiling studio on the border of Purgatory and the Upper East Side, is slightly more successful in that regard.) At least Grandage has decided on a singular fulcrum for presenting the work, building its energy on the agitation and anger that inspired Rothko’s works in the first place, and this consistency helps keep the play as a whole rich and satisfying even when a few elements fall just out of sync.
Molina is astonishingly committed, detailing every chiseled aspect of Rothko’s drive to fashion compelling ideas out of blank canvases and blank human beings. You can never observe even the tiniest crack in his steamroller façade; even when he breaks, as he does in slow motion for much of the last third of the play, the splitting steel reveals only sturdier (if smaller) stuff beneath. Wielding brushes and words alike as if they were weapons, Molina delivers one of the Broadway season’s most corrosively commanding portrayals.
Redmayne, on the other hand, presents Ken as a model of malleability, a galaxy still in the process of forming. As Ken absorbs or rejects Rothko’s offerings, Redmayne slowly and deliberately transforms the boy from a wayward naïf into an unassailable personality all his own. (That his character’s journey mirrors Rothko’s in reverse is a big part of the gambit’s success.) Unfortunately, Redmayne is far less secure in his accent than Molina - Ken is supposed to be from the Midwest, but frequently sounds like he’s much closer to the opposite shore of the Mid-Atlantic.
This isn’t a huge problem, but it throws into some doubt Ken’s anchoring authenticity, and establishing that is vital for the play. What Rothko struggles to understand is that the truths he paints aren’t the only ones out there - sometimes other viewpoints and other voices can deepen, rather than diminish, the cultural conversation contemporary art exists to provoke. In other words, Rothko’s problem is that he sees the world too much in black and white. Logan and Grandage, however, did not, and that’s why Red is one of the season’s most colorful successes.